Sunday, January 30, 2004 — A critical look at the Beatitudes

Sunday, January 30, 2004, Matthew 5:1-12
First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California
An Open and Affirming Congregation and Regional Conference
Resources selected by the Rev. Robert F. Cramer, Eucharistic minister

__A critical look at the Beatitudes__

In the very earliest gospel, Thomas, Jesus asks for a “Be” attitude. This is the shortest list we have. Notice how Jesus wants behaviors (“do”) to be grounded in one’s deepest attitudes (“be”).

“Jesus said, ‘Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.’ Jesus said, ‘Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled.’ Jesus said, ‘Congratulations to those who have been persecuted in their hearts: they are the ones who have truly come to know the Father.’ Jesus said, ‘Congratulations to you when you are hated and persecuted; and no place will be found, wherever you have been persecuted’.” –Gospel of Thomas 54; 69:2; 69:1; 68:1-2, in the _Scholars Version_. They are set out in this order, in The Five Gospels, to show the parallels among Thomas, Luke, and Matthew (pages 292-3).

It is typical of the later gospels, the “other four” in the book, The Five Gospels (they are of course the traditional, canonical gospels), to “remember more” than Thomas did.

Each of those familiar ones constructs a narrative within which to frame Jesus’ teachings, some of which scholars believe Jesus most likely did offer, and some of which it seems clear that people later either thought he must have said (although only the writer of Thomas could have been an actual listener when Jesus spoke).

Some of the “must have said” passages are easily traceable to the kinds of lore that other sages were known to have said. Most Christians are content, of course, to believe Jesus said everything enclosed in quote marks. I have learned that some supposed problems with Jesus’ words come from some words and deeds that seem contradictory. When the “recollections” of writers who came much after Jesus’ actual ministry are recognized as having sources other than Jesus, it makes it both easier, and harder, to follow Jesus: easier, because he’s much clearer, simpler, more direct than much the gospels have him saying; harder, because his aphorisms and parables, and those Beatitudes that probably do go back to him, are pretty strong stuff. The Jesus Seminar scholars pretty much agree that early “Jesus Way” communities, where the gospels were developed, modified Thomas (and Mark, the next-earliest gospel, which doesn’t contain the Beatitudes) to “soften” some of the hardest sayings of J!

Let’s look at Luke and Matthew as they tell this story.

 Luke 6:20-26                   Matthew 5:3-12
 Congratulations, you poor!     Congratulations to the poor
 God's domain belongs to you.   in spirit! Heaven's domain
                                belongs to them.
 Congratulations, you hungry!   Congratulations to those who
                                hunger and thirst for justice!
 You will have a feast.         They will have a feast.
 Congratulations, you who       Congratulations to those who
 weep now! You will laugh.      grieve! They will be consoled.
                                Congratulations to those who
                                have suffered persecution for
                                the sake of justice! Heaven's
                                domain belongs to them.
 Congratulations to you         Congratulations to you when
 when people hate you, and
 when they ostracize you         
 and denounce you and scorn     they denounce you and persecute
 your name as evil, because     you and spread malicious gossip
 of the son of Adam!            about you on account of me.
 Rejoice on that day, and       Rejoice and be glad!
 jump for joy!
 Just remember, your
 compensation is great in       Your compensation is great in
 heaven.                        heaven.
 Recall that their ancestors    Remember, this is how they
 treated the prophets the       persecuted the prophets who
 same way.                      preceded you.
 Damn you rich! You already
 have your consolation.
 Damn you who are well-fed
 now! You will know hunger.
 Damn you who laugh now!
 You will learn to weep and
 grieve. Damn you when
 everybody speaks well of you!
 Recall that their ancestors
 treated the prophets the
 same way.
                               Congratulations to the gentle!
                               They will inherit the earth.
                               Congratulations to the merciful!
                               They will receive mercy.
                               Congratulations to those with
                               undefiled hearts! They will see
                               God. Congratulations to those
                               who work for peace! They will
                               be known as God's children.

(This is slightly adapted from Table 7, pages 292-3, in The Five Gospels.)

I want to quote _The Five Gospels again:_ “The Fellows (scholars) of the (Jesus) Seminar were virtually unanimous in their view that Jesus is the author of the first three congratulations. They are also convinced that (Luke’s) versions of those addressed to the poor, the weeping, and the hungry are more original.

“Some earlier form of the fourth beatitude in Luke may go back to Jesus; it had to do with those who suffer now. In its present form, however, it reflects conditions of the Christian community after persecution had set in.”

With regard to Luke 6:27, incidentally, “Love your enemies” is considered, by the Jesus Seminar, to be the fourth most likely saying of Jesus to have been accurately preserved. For those who want to help people follow the Way of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching and preaching of this text is surely very important.

__Lateral perspectives on the beatitudes__

–1– “There are striking similarities between (Jesus and Buddha),” writes Marcus Borg in “Jesus and Buddha, the parallel sayings,” Seastone/Ulysses Press, 1997. “I have sometimes said that if the Buddha and Jesus were to meet, neither would try to convert the other–not because they would regard such an effort as hopeless, but because they would recognize one another” (page v). Here are a few examples paralleling Jesus’ blessing of the poor. (We might not here that Matthew softens Thomas’ and Luke’s words, “the poor,” by writing “the poor in spirit”).

“Let us live most happily, possessing nothing; let us feed on joy, like the radiant gods” (Dhammapada 15.4).

“Riches make most people greedy, and so are like caravans lurching down the road to perdition. Any possession that increases the sin of selfishness or does nothing to confirm one’s wish to renounce what one has is nothing but a drawback in disguise” (Jatakamala 5.5 and 15).

“Giving is the noble expression of the benevolence of the mighty. Even dust, given in childish innocence, is a good gift. No gift that is given in good faith to a worthy recipient can be called small; its effect is so great” (Jatakamala 3.23).

–2– “The Gospel of Philip” will seem to some Christians inappropriate for use in worship, but we shall use it today because in its original form, probably in Greek, it may be as early as 150-175 BCE. By that time traditions about Jesus had become even richer in diversity than those that were preserved in the Bible; but much in “Philip” was taken very seriously by some Christian communities for almost two centuries, and some things have made their way into lore about Mary Magdalene that continues even today. The following isn’t so much about the beatitudes as such, but like canonical material, it speaks of Jesus’ itinerant teachings, and about his disciples.

“Jesus travelled through towns and villages, preacdhing and announcing the good news of God’s imperial rule. The twelve were with him, and also some women whom he cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary, the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

“… There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and h(is?) sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

“… And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?’.” (Philip 59:7-11, 63:32-64:5.)

__A brief service of Holy Communion__

Opening prayer of confession and words of assurance:

As your children, our Parent Creator, we often give you thanks; we do confess, as we gather at the Table just as did disciples being taught by Jesus, sometimes resisting his vision for them, we shudder to think that Jesus might really have meant for us to renounce everything; it can make us poor in spirit even to think about being among the poorest of the poor. How could we survive?

“Drink deeply from the living fountain of the Lord,” says Ode 30 in a book of worship used in early churches, ‘The Odes of Solomon’ (circa 100 CE). “It is opening for you. Come, all who are thirsty and drink, and rest by the fountain of the Lord. How beautiful and pure: it rests the soul, water sweeter than honey. The honeycombs of bees are nothing in comparison. This water flows from the lips of the Lord. Its Name is from the Lord’s heart. It is invisible and has no borders. It is unknown until it comes into our midst. Those who drink it are blessed and they rest. Hallelujah!”

This is our confession; this is your promise, Lord. Amen.

A reading of non-canonical scripture: Thomas’ beatitudes, earlier in this folder.

A moment of discussion of Jesus’ teaching, our confession of worry, and the words of assurance.

A look at Luke’s and Matthew’s beatitudes (if there is time).

Some teachings of the Buddha on the richness of poverty (if there is time).

A communion prayer: “As this cup of blessing is shared within our midst, may we share the presence of your love. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you. As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all your people from all the ends of the earth be gathered into one in you.” (Marty Haugen, 1990; Number 783 in “The New Century Hymnal.)

Sharing of the bread and cup, and benediction.